Terror in the air as casualties mount in Libya

Feelings are running high at the regime's use of warplanes
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The air strike spun the Toyota pick-up truck off the road and into a dusty field. The people inside – a family of four – were dragged out and put into an ambulance, but it was too late: they were already dead.

Yesterday, the white truck lay abandoned on the side of the road – eight miles east of the city of Ras Lanuf, the doors sprayed with blood and shrapnel holes, the windscreen shattered, the tyres blown.

The deaths were just a few among the mounting numbers of casualties in this increasingly vicious conflict. But they may contribute to the first military action being taken against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's regime by the international community, with the imposition of a no-fly zone. There were six attacks by the regime's air force yesterday, including one next to an apartment block in Ras Lanuf, with no casualties. A second bomb failed to detonate and lay on the pavement with people walking by. The rebels, or Shabaab, have no bomb disposal specialists.

The use of warplanes by the regime has become a highly emotive issue, but contrary to claims by some in the protest movement, there is little evidence to show that civilians are being targeted deliberately.

All the bombings and missile strikes – with the exception of the one near the apartments in Ras Lanuf – have been aimed away from large gatherings of people.

Two Sukhoi warplanes dropped bombs 20 feet from a colleague and myself last Sunday, which failed to detonate, sending dust and debris over us instead of shrapnel.

The tactics being used by the regime remain unclear. If air power is used purely as a psychological weapon then it is having an effect – it makes the rebels extremely nervous.

If the aim is to avoid a "no-fly zone" by minimising casualties from the air, then it is unlikely to succeed.

The rebels voice various reasons for the failure of the pilots to bomb them. Colonel Abdul Jawad Al-Misari, who is in charge of air defence in Ras Lanuf, maintained it is due to the effectiveness of his anti-aircraft missiles. But these are SAM 7s and similar of the same vintage and of limited use against modern warplanes.

Another Shabaab officer, Yunis al-Elwai's explanation was more emotive: "It is because they are Libyan pilots and they eject from the planes and crash them rather than carry out bombings. Gaddafi also uses foreign mercenary pilots and they kill people."

Yet the rebel leadership, adept at news presentation to the global media, have yet to produce any of these defecting pilots. The only warplane to have been brought down so far was flown by a Tunisian and Sudanese.

However, the tactics of the rebels are also perplexing. After repulsing the regime's attempt to recapture Brega – a major petrochemicals centre – the emboldened opposition militia had seized Ras Lanuf, an oil port. Ahead of them Bin Jawad, a strategic point on the road to Sirte – Gaddafi's birthplace and a loyalist stronghold – as well as the capital, Tripoli, lay open with the regime's troops retreating.

The Independent had arrived at Bin Jawad on Saturday to find the town empty of loyalist forces and a group of men waiting patiently at the gate to welcome the rebels.

Told of the situation, Major Selim Idris, of the rebel forces, said: "The Gaddafi men are demoralised. Great many of the Libyans among them will come over to us. Tonight, we shall consolidate in Bin Jawad."

Instead, after going into the town and celebrating with the local population – with much firing in the air – the rebel fighters decided to return to Ras Lanuf.

"There was not much good food at Bin Jawad; no good places to sleep, so it was decided that we come back," said Ali Abdulahi, one of the fighters. "No one stopped us." The following morning the Shabaab returned to Bin Jawad, into a well set-up and fierce ambush, losing 60 men. They have been unable to return to the town since then and now find themselves desperately defending Ras Lanuf; their backs to the wall.

Asked about why the tactical advantage was allowed to slip away, Colonel Bashir Abdul Gadir, a rebel commander, said: "We don't use military tactics. Our tactics are revolutionary. This is the nature of the people's revolution. You can't control it. Only 10 per cent of us are professional soldiers."

Another former army officer who had defected, Captain Yussuf Karim, was less sanguine about the state of affairs. Regarding the arrest of a British special forces team in Benghazi at the weekend, he said: "It would have been better if their sentence was to stay here and try and train this lot. That would have been some benefit.

"But that not would have been politically acceptable for the leadership in Benghazi. That is a pity."